Elizabeth George


I got a very cool email from editor this week. The Huffington Post does a regular feature on books people are spotted reading in public. This week, Secrets of a Lady was one of the books featured in the column. Someone was spotted reading it on the 6 train in New York.

Even though intellectually one knows people other that one’s friends and family are reading one’s books, it’s often hard to grasp this fact on a visceral level. I have writer friends who’ve seen people reading their books in public, but it doesn’t happen that often. It’s never happened to me. This was as good–better in a way, since it also made for some very nice publicity.

I love the idea of a column based on books people are spotted reading. As a writer, I always notice books people are reading in public. Airplane rides are particularly instructive, as one has a large group of people to observe, many of them with reading matter. In fact, after traveling, my writer friends and I will often analyze what books we saw being read.

If someone spotted me reading it public just now, they’d find me happily immersed in Laurie King’s The God of the Hive. I’m so enjoying reading this book after a year of anticipation from the end of The Language of Bees. In another week, I’d be seen reading Deborah Crombie’s Necessary as Blood (I’ve been having a lot of fun catching up on books of Deb’s that I missed as I anticipate the release of the next one next fall). And then there’s a new Elizabeth George to delve into…

Do you notice what books people are reading in public? What books would someone spot you reading these days?

Be sure to check out the latest Fraser Correspondence addition and let me know what you think of Gisèle’s take on Charles & Mel’s marriage.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms, honorary moms, and future moms. And hugs to those of you who don’t have your mom to celebrate with any more. I hope, like me, you have lots of great memories.

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As you may know, I began my writing career collaborating with my mother, Joan Grant. We wrote eight books and four novellas together, seven Regencies romances (and four novellas) as Anthea Malcolm, and one historical romance, Dark Angel, as Anna Grant (which is the first of of a quartet that continues with the three historical romances I

As I mention in the long version of my bio, my mother, a social psychologist (as was my father), loved books and read out loud to me a great deal. She introduced me to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel world, Sabatini, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. I in turn introduced her to Dorothy Dunnett (we used to discuss the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolò endlessly) and Elizabeth George. I think my mom would have loved Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. I think the fact that we loved the same books and shared the same literary influences made it easier for us to plot and write together.

In honor of Mother’s Day (a holiday my mom deplored as too commercial :-)), I thought I’d post a video clip where I talk my mom’s influence on me as writer. I still feel her influence when I write. In fact, Charles and Mélanie were inspired by two secondary characters from an unpublished book my mom and I wrote together.

Has anyone read the Anthea Malcolm/Anna Grant books? Do you see an evolution from them to the books I write now? What similarities and differences do you note? Are there other writers you read who are writing partnerships? Writers, have you ever written with a partner? What are the rewards and challenges you’ve found?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Mélanie to Cecily Summer, Simon Tanner’s actress friend who appears in Beneath a Silent Moon. Cecily Summers is the only character so far to have appeared in both the Anthea Malcolm books and the Charles & Mélanie books. Cecily appears in my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regency, An Improper Proposal. Readers of both sets of books may have noticed that Simon’s theatre, the Tavistock, is also Rachel Ford’s theatre in An Improper Proposal. It hasn’t been dealt with in the books thus far, but Simon is partners with Rachel and Guy Melchett and Rachel’s uncle by marriage.

In her letter to Cecily, Mélanie writes about the challenges of juggling motherhood and her other work and responsibilities. What do you think of Mélanie as a mother? Where do you think motherhood fits in her complicated life as a priority? How well do you think she manages to juggle the many, complicated (and often contradictory) aspects of her life?

12 May update: I’m guest blogging today on Jaunty Quills about Damaged Characters. Do stop by and comment.

My friend and fellow writer Penny Williamson and I spent a wonderful afternoon today at a party of Dorothy Dunnett readers. Dunnett readers, as I’ve blogged about before, tend to be a fun, well-read, and extraordinarily nice group of people. Over tea and wine and a delicious array of food we talked about books by Dunnett and others as well as favorite television series.

There’s something about Dunnett’s books that particularly lends them to discussion and analysis. They’re so complex and multi-layered. The books aren’t mysteries, but there are mysteries running through both the Lymond Chronicle and the House of Niccoló which provide endless food for debate and speculation. Even now both series are finished, plenty of unresolved questions remain. Add to that vivid historical context, rich literary allusions, and a fascinating cast of characters, and it’s hard to read Dunnett and not want to talk about the books. As we discussed at the party today, in the dark ages before the internet, we all had long lists of questions we wanted to discuss with other Dunnett readers. For a long time, the only other Dunnett reader I knew was my mom. We would discuss and debate the books all the time. Penny and I first became friends because we both loved Dunnett books. We’d spend long lunches talking over the Lymond Chronicle and debating what might happen next in the House of Niccoló.

Through my Dunnett friends, I’m also involved in a discussion group of Dunnett readers who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’d be amazed at the parallels :-)). This evening, I’ve been pondering what it is about certain stories that seem to particularly lend themselves to discussion. Ongoing story arcs are a big part of it, so book and television series both lend themselves to reader and viewer discussions, online and in person. Dunnetts’ series and BVTS both have complicated, ongoing stories, with plenty of questions about who’s real agenda is what, who will end up with whom, how characters may have been related to other characters in the past, and a host of other mysteries. Not to mention books, episodes, and seasons that end with nerve-wracking cliff hangers.

Another important element is characters one comes to care about and root for. Sometimes, particularly when there are romantic triangles, the rival merits of the characters become a topic of discussion. I recall a number of debates over Gelis verus Kathi in the House of Niccoló or Angel versus Spike on BVTS.

The X-Files and Alias also lend themselves to discussion, as does Lost (I’m watching last week’s episode as I write this and will probably have to rewatch it to make sure I didn’t miss a vital clue). I think the more a series, television or book, has an going mytharc (to use an X-Files term), with story and character development that extends from episode to episode or book to book, the more it lends itself to discussion. The mystery series I talk about the most with fellow readers may wrap up the central mystery within a book but the continuing characters have plenty of ongoing issues that stretch from book to book. Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series, Laurie King’s Mary Russell series, and C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr series all come to mind. When I finish one of the books, I inevitably want to talk about it (particularly the in the case of the recent George and Harris books which left lots of unresolved questions). They aren’t mysteries, but the same is true of Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series. There are always questions, whether it’s about the identity of villains, Colin and Eloise, or the Pink Carnation herself.

Another thing all these series have in common is vivid, richly-detailed world-building, whether it’s Dunnett’s 15th and the 16th century Europe and beyond, suburban Sunnydale, Mulder & Scully’s conspiracy-rife FBI, Sydney Bristow’s CIA and the Alliance, an island that moves back and forth in time (and goodness knows what else), Lynley & Havers’s Scotland Yard, Holmes & Russell’s 20s Britain and beyond filled with puzzles and adventures, Sebastian St. Cyr’s dark Regency London, or the Pink Carnation’s adventure-filled Napoleonic Europe. They’re all worlds I enjoy visiting, filled with characters I enjoy spending time with.

Do you have favorite series, whether literary or on television, that lend themselves particularly to discussion? Do you seek out friends to talk them over with? What elements in series do you find particularly good topics for analysis?

Be sure to check out this week’s addition to the Fraser Correspondence, a letter from Quen to Charles.

As I went about a long list of Saturday errands, I found myself thinking “what am I going to blog about this week?” As I often do, I returned to the thoughtful comments readers made on prior blog posts. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to everyone who reads my posts and comments and gets such wonderful discussions going. It keeps the blog dynamic, which I think is so important with any web-based material. And it provides much needed inspiration to me as I do my weekly updates :-).

This week’s inspiration comes from another comment Taryn made, in responses to the discussion about my What makes you want to buy a book? post a couple of weeks ago. Taryn brought up a question I’d love to hear answers on from more readers of this blog:

I have a question for this crowd: Who, among your favorite authors, would you put Tracy’s books? For me, I pick Elizabeth George, Anne Perry, Pam Rosenthal, Judith Ivory, but even Harlan Coben (for the horrible things that happen to ordinary people) and whose novels are relentless. Vince Flynn has the relentless part down and while his circle of people is very small he is completely committed to them, so if feels like there is room on this bookshelf. The are others – what are yours? My criteria is spectacular writing about compelling people who can’t help but hurt the one they love because of things in their past, they don’t need to be a love story but a history/mystery is probably a better fit.

In any case what I want to know is who’d be on your bookcase?

Authors are often asked what other authors’ books are like theirs. It’s a tantalizing and often frustrating question. It’s hard to step back and see one’s own work from enough distance to come up with an answer. But I know as a reader I find such comparisons a very helpful way to discover new authors. I discovered Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull, when people discussed it on a Dorothy Dunnett list I’m on. It was described as having Dunnettish qualities and someone referred to the “Harriet Vane-esque” heroine. With a recommendation that referenced two of my favorite authors (and one of my favorite literary heroines) how could I resist? I ordered Freedom & Necessity from Amazon and devoured it in about twenty-four hours of almost non-stop reading. It remains one of my all time favorite books. And I totally agree with the Dunnett and Harriet Vane comparisons.

I started watching The X-Files when readers on a Laurie King list I’m on compared the relationship between Russell & Holmes to the relationship between Scully & Mulder. As anyone who reads my blog will know, I became totally hooked on The X-Files. And I definitely see the comparison to Holmes & Russell. Very different characters, but the intellectual partnership is there, the strong emotions simmering under the surface and expressed in a sort of code, the interplay between the mystery solving and the relationship, the understated words that speak volumes because so much is unsaid (Mulder’s “I don’t want to risk losing you” in “Requiem”; Holmes comment that the sun setting in the east wouldn’t cause his heart to stop but the sight of his wife going over the rail of a ship might do so in Locked Rooms).

I’d love to hear more on this topic from readers of this blog. What books would you compare the Charles & Mélanie books to? Did any of you find the Charles & Mélanie books because they were recommended by someone who said “this book is sort of like…”? Have you discovered other authors (or television shows or movies) because someone recommended them as similar to a book you loved? Do you find yourself comparing authors to other authors when you make recommendations to friends? Do you group books on a mental bookshelf with books you find similar?

I posted a new addition to the Fraser Correspondence last night–a letter from Gisèle, on the one month anniversary of her marriage, to Lady Frances.

Taryn had some wonderful comments on the Mask of Night page recently–wonderful both in the sense of making me as an author, very happy, but also very-thought provoking in terms of what draws us as readers to a novel. As Taryn pointed out, the Charles & Mélanie books are hard to categorize which can be “a bit hard a bit of a positioning problem – is it a murder mystery, a spy novel, a romance? Not that it can’t be and isn’t all of that, but although I’m not in publishing, just a passionate end-reader, often I think the marketing is an afterthought and they don’t always trust their audience, so they want to “dumb it down” to make it “one thought.” Your work is so textured that it isn’t easy to distill – for me this is what has me staying up way too late trying to find out what happens!”

Hearing that readers have stayed up too late reading one’s book is one of the nicest compliments a writer can receive. But Taryn’s comment also sums up why the Charles & Mel books can be tricky to market. I’ve always loved books that cross genres. Mysteries (Dorothy Sayers, Laurie King, Elizabeth George, C.S. Harris) and fantasy novels (Barbara Hambly, Steven Brust & Emma Bull) with strong romantic threads, romances with lots of plot and history and adventure (Penelope Williamson, Laura Kinsale), historical fiction with intrigue and adventure and romance (Dorothy Dunnett, Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brien, Robert Goddard, Lauren Willig). But it can be hard for publishers and booksellers to figure out how to market these books. I don’t think it’s so much that readers don’t like books that cross genres as that marketing strategies are book store shelving tend to be based on slotting books into genres.

Which makes the cover copy for the books that much more important. I asked Taryn about this in the course of the discussion on the Mask page. What would make her pick up the books? (She bought Secrets of Lady based on recommendations not the copy.) Taryn said, “I’d like to think about the back-of-the-book question a bit more but my first thought (for Secrets of a Lady) is yes, you convey time (Regency) and place (seamy London), and secrets, which are always tempting. For Beneath a Silent Moon, it’s closer to making me want to buy, but…seems to focus on Charles and less about Melanie, who is one of the most interesting heroines since Scarlett O’Hara or even about them together and how complex they are. And also the theme of forgiveness – but not heavy-handed, maybe in the form of a question – could you find a way to forgive the love of your life after you’ve learned they have betrayed you? This seems like it might be a direction to consider…don’t know, maybe have a small focus group from visitors to your blog!”

Which gave me the idea of turning the discussion into this week’s blog. What themes or plot elements or phrases on a book cover grab your interest? Did you pick up Daughter/Secrets or Beneath based on the cover copy? If so, what was it in the copy that caught your attention? Are there other ways you think the books could be described that you’d find more compelling? In general, what makes you want to buy a book?

Taryn said, “What makes me buy – spies, tortured war veterans (male and female) as i am intrigued by the parallels to the 21st century version. Relationship is a big part of what makes me buy (cover art attracts (although I hate those men with no shirts, *where* did those shirts go, anyway??)). I picked Secrets up through romance so I was expecting relationship stuff – wow, those revelation scenes early on *blew my mind* – and that kind of inter-personal drama really delivered! Even if it was not a typical romance book, it delivered the best of romance – a strong set of characters with real problems that they need to solve together. Unusual that these are married, that also added to the “I’m intrigued – I think I’ll buy” moment.”

As I’ve mentioned before, anything to do with “spies” or “espionage” on a book cover grabs my interest. Doubly so if it’s historical. The same with politics, particularly historical politics. So do words or phrases implying there’s a complex plot–“twists and turns,” “plots and counterplots,” “maze of intrigue,” “secrets”, “unraveling,” etc… And anything that indicates lovers with a history–married couples, ex-lovers, enemies who’ve betrayed each other. And thematically, anything to do with ambiguity, the elusive nature of truth, loyalty and betrayal is pretty much guaranteed to draw me in.

I’d love to hear other readers’ thoughts on these questions. What makes you want to buy a book?

On another note, I’m now on Facebook. I’m still getting the knack of how it works, but if you’re on Facebook do friend me, and I’d love suggestions for reading and writing-related groups to join.

And be sure to check on this week’s Fraser Correspondence addition–it’s a letter from Mélanie to Isobel Lydgate about Twelfth Night at Dunmykel.

Update 14 January: I’m blogging on History Hoydens today on bringing an historical world to life, inspired by the movie Milk.

There’s something about summer that seems to call out for lazy afternoons burrowing into books by the pool, on the beach, or simply in a favorite armchair. My summer is anything but lazy, thanks to my involvement with the Merola Opera Program (a summer training program for opera singers, pianists/coaches, and stage directors), but I have been finding some reading time. I thought this would be a fun week to post some reading recommendations.

Your Scandalous Ways
by Loretta Chase

I finally had a chance to read this, and I loved it. It combines so many of my favorite elements in a book–intrigue, espionage, a heroine with a past, a hero with his own emotional baggage, witty repartee, fascinating secondary characters, a beautifully realized setting (Venice, 1820). I loved the fact that the heroine is not only a courtesan, she’s unapologetic about it. I loved that the spy hero really feels the soul-destroying strain of the business. I loved that Francesca and James seemed so well-matched.

Careless in Red
by Elizabeth George

I’ve been fascinated to see where Elizabeth George would take her series after the recent, audacious plot twist (two books ago, but the last book was in a sense a prequel). I’m currently in the midst of Careless in Red, and completely hooked. It’s equally intriguing to watch Thomas Lynley grapple with recent events and to meet a compelling new set of characters. I find myself staying up far later than I intended, driven by the desire to learn more about these people, what secrets they’re hiding, what drives them, what will happen next.

The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham
I love stories about married couples, both as a writer and as a reader. There’s so much rich and complex history to explore. The Painted Veil explores the theme in exquisite, heartbreaking detail. Their marriage beset by lies and shattered illusions, Kitty and Walter Fane leave 1920s Hong Kong and journey into the heart of a cholera epidemic.

Possession
by A. S. Byatt
Two modern-day academics investigate a literary mystery involving a secret love affair between two Victorian-era poets. Byatt not only creates vivid, compelling characters in both settings, she wrote the poetry for both her fictional poets. The poetry (each poet has a very different style) is interspersed throughout the book and often contains clues to the mystery. I read this book on a long plane flight, and I was so engrossed in it I wanted the trip to last longer!

Atonement
by Ian McEwan
A haunting, multi-layered book that begins on an English country estate in the 1930s. A thirteen-year-old girl (and aspiring writer) misinterprets her sister’s romance with the the son of one of the family’s servants, with tragic consequences that shatter lives and ripple through World War II and beyond for those involved. It’s a book I thought about for a long time after I read it, because I loved the characters so much and because the book questions the nature and power of what a novel is in a way that fascinated me as a writer. I recently saw the movie and also loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so close to the images in th my head as I read the book.

The Lymond Chronicles
by Dorothy Dunnett
This is actually a six-book series, but the books are so intertwined its impossible to pick just one. It was also nearly impossible for me to put them down once I started reading. I devoured the books the summer between high school and college, and have reread them many times since. The story begins in 16th-century Scotland and ranges all over the Continent. The fictional characters are so intertwined with real people and events you’d swear it must have happened this way. There’s wild adventure, court intrigue, romance, and at the heart of the series is the mystery of who Francis Crawford of Lymond really is—both the literal mystery of his birth and the tantalizing question of the real man behind the many masks he wears.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
by Laurie R. King
I was drawn into the world of the Mary Russell series with the first paragraph of this book. Mary Russell literally stumbles across the retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs and eventually becomes his apprentice. The mysteries are intriguing, but it’s the complex, evolving relationship between Holmes and Russell that makes me return to this book for frequent rereads and eagerly await each new book in the series.

Gaudy Night
by Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night is one of my favorite love stories. I love the whole Peter Wimsey series, particularly the books that involve Peter’s relationship with Harriet Vane. That relationship comes to a crisis point in this book. Peter and Harriet investigate a crime during a reunion at Harriet’s college at Oxford, while Harriet struggles with the risks of love and the dangers of passion and Peter realizes there will be no going back from whatever choice she makes about the course of their relationship.

Mortal Sins
by Penelope Williamson
A violent crime brings Lieutenant Daman Rourke face to face with his lost love, Remy Lelourie, now a silent film star and possibly a murderess. The story twists and turns through a dark, vivid, wonderfully realized 1920s New Orleans. The characters are compelling, the writing lush and lyrical, and the plot full of page-turning surprises.

Freedom and Necessity
by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
I keep talking about this book. Breakneck adventure, intrigue worthy of a chess match, page-turning mystery, and heart-stopping romance. There’s a brilliant hero on the run, an intrepid heroine, and a tangle of conspiracies, both personal and political. Set in England in 1849 and told in letters, this is one of my favorite books ever.

What’s on your summer reading list? Any recommendations to share? Any thoughts on the books I’ve mentioned?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is again from Raoul in the aftermath of Kenneth Fraser’s death. One letter to Charles, another to Mélanie.

Over dinner one night on our recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my friend Penny Williamson and I go to talking about what a lot of our writers friends call “deal-breakers.” Something in a book–a type of plot twist or character, a setting, a premise–that will make you not read ever the most well-recommended book or put a book down unfinished if one stumbles on it unawares. Rather to my own surprise, I realized that while I have plenty of likes and dislikes as a reader, I have very few actual deal-breakers.

I don’t tend to like stories in which a major part of the conflict is based on a misunderstanding. And yet to some extent that ‘s true in The Scarlet Pimpernel, a book I love. But the misunderstanding is so grounded in who Marguerite and Percy are as characters that it makes for fascinating reading (and there’s never a sense of “oh, if they just had a conversation they could clear this up.”). I don’t like series in which an ongoing character, particularly a love interest dies, and yet I’m currently thoroughly engrossed in Elizabeth George’s Careless in Red, despite the events of her last two books. I have a really hard time with books in which children die, but several writers I very much admire–Dorothy Dunnett, Sebastian Faulks, Penny herself–have used this plot element in ways that were so integral to the story I couldn’t quarrel with it, however devastating the scenes.

In general, I prefer books with happy endings. But I recognize that happy endings don’t suit all books. I found the ending of Atonement so fascinating in what it was saying about the very nature of fiction, that I can’t imagine the story ending in a different way (or perhaps I should say “ways” :-). In our conversation, Penny and I agreed that Casablanca wouldn’t work with a happy ending–that, in fact, if Rick and Ilsa went off together, it would somehow cheapen the power of their love for each other.

Are there elements in books that are deal-breakers for you? Things that will make you not pick up a book or stop reading a book or series? Have you ever read a book with an element you thought was a deal-breaker for you but found it worked for you in the context of that story? If you read the Charles & Mélanie books, are there any turns the series could take that would be deal-breakers?

Be sure to check out the Fraser Correspondence. I’ve just posted a letter from Aspasia Newland to her sister, written as Aspasia is about to leave for the house party at Dunmykel.

Update 28 May: I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about the ethical and logistical challenges of writing fictional stories that involve real people and events. Do stop by and join the discussion.

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